Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Arizona ‘mancation’: Part 1 – Desert drive and the Bagdad copper mine


I just got back from taking a “mancation” (man vacation) to Phoenix with my brother Bill.
Phoenix had two main things that interested me: baseball spring training and relatively close proximity to the twice-a-year Big Sandy Shoot – the largest machine gun shoot in the U.S.
Additional pluses for the Valley of the Sun included great weather (a nice break from the cold, rainy East Coast this time of year) and the wide open spaces of the American West.

Desert drive

The spring Big Sandy Shoot was held Friday March 26 through Sunday March 28 outside of Wikieup, Ariz., about a three-hour drive northwest of Phoenix.
We drove up Friday morning in our rented Jeep Liberty SUV. The drive along U.S. 93 is beautiful. The terrain includes vast stretches of Sonoran desert with saguaro cactus in the lower elevations and Joshua trees in the higher regions. The spring desert was blooming with wild flowers and cactus flowers in yellow, purple, blue and red. Along the highway are magnificent buttes of giant boulders and majestic mountains.
Once outside of the Phoenix metro area, we drove through the little towns of Wittmann and Morristown; Wickenberg, an Old West town known for its ranches; Nothing, aptly named since there’s nothing there but a roadside shack selling pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven; and ultimately Wikieup, which features a large modern Shell gas station, an Indian jewelry shop and the Eat at Joe’s BBQ.
Before the Big Sandy Shoot, we took a detour off U.S. 93 to visit Bagdad, Ariz.

Bagdad copper mine

Bagdad is one of two company towns in Arizona. It’s owned by the mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. The town was built to serve the Bagdad copper mine, a large open-pit mining operation that employs 1,200 people. The town has a population of 2,500.
Gigantic 300-ton trucks built by Caterpillar Inc. work the mine 24 hours a day. Each Caterpillar 793 can carry its own weight in ore, said Ramon Parra Jr., our tour guide and a retired mine worker. The mine has 25 such trucks each costing $3.5 million. But that fleet’s small compared with other mine operations, including Freeport-McMoRan’s mine in Morenci, Ariz.
The Bagdad mine produces an average of more than 160 million pounds of copper each year.
Ore from the Bagdad mine is crushed and pulverized to the consistency of flour. The metals are removed with chemicals. It takes 1 ton (2,000 pounds) of ore at the mine to get 6 pounds of copper. The Bagdad mine also yields smaller amounts of gold. A third mineral obtained from the mine is molybdenum, or moly, which is used to improve the physical properties of steel.
An electronic billboard at the mine displays the current price of copper and other minerals as well as the Freeport-McMoRan stock for employees. Many workers are shareholders in Freeport, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol FCX.
Freeport-McMoRan produces 250-pound sheets of copper on site that are trucked out for further processing and to make products like copper wire to transmit electricity. The sheets are 99.99% pure.
Most of the copper produced at the Bagdad mine is destined for China, which is rapidly building up a modern infrastructure.
Miners had to remove 1,000 feet of overburden (worthless rock) to get to the rich copper seams. They’ve since dug another 1,000 feet down. The company estimates that it could dig another 2,000 feet deeper to extract copper ore. That would put the floor of the open pit mine at sea level. The mine could have 100 years of productive use left, Parra said.
From an overlook, the giant trucks look like Tonka toys as they slowly drive in and out of the mine. The sides of the mine look like stairs. Each of these stairs or “benches” is 50 feet deep.
Freeport-McMoRan started offering free tours of the mine to interested people to show environmentalists how they were managing the land. A large area of the property is a dump for tailings, what’s left at the tail end of mineral extraction. These materials contain sulfuric acid and other chemicals harmful to living things. But Freeport-McMoRan says it goes to great lengths to recycle its chemicals and waste water and keep them contained. It later makes the land suitable for life again by adding a surface layer of “organics.”
“This is reality. This isn’t the Garden of Eden,” Parra said. “It’s messy, I agree. But somebody’s got to do it.”
Cities wouldn’t be able to power homes and businesses without the copper it mines, he says.
Next: The Big Sandy Shoot

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